Trimming Futures?

UA students brace for a decrease in federal student aid

The federal government may soon trim the amount of money available to Arizona's low-income college students.

The House approved $14.3 billion in cuts to federal aid programs Nov. 18 when it narrowly passed the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, 217-215. All six of Arizona's Republican representatives voted for the act, while Democrats Raúl Grijalva and Ed Pastor voted against it.

Differences in the House bill and a Senate version must now be worked out in conference committee.

The cuts are part of a long-term trend shifting the emphasis of financial aid from grants--which don't need to be repaid--to loans, said Richard Roberts, UA budget director.

"It's a very serious problem," he said. "Years ago, federal aid was primarily grants, and now we see that ratio has flipped."

Groups opposed to the cuts, including the United States Student Association, say higher interest rates and taxes for loans could saddle students with thousands of dollars in additional debt, depending on how much is borrowed. Many Republicans and others counter that students will benefit because of increased borrowing limits, and that the need to rein in government spending trumped other considerations.

The cuts may also mean there won't be a meaningful increase in the dollar value of Pell Grants, said John Nametz, UA director of financial aid. Grants of between $400 and $4,050 are currently awarded to low-income students who qualify, based on a sliding scale of what students' families are estimated to be able to afford for their education. The amount is generally split between semesters, so a student receiving the maximum award of $4,050 would get $2,025 per semester.

Christopher Dang and Andrew Record, co-directors of the Arizona Students' Association, were indignant about attempts to slice into student financial aid. They said in a conference call that their association had fiercely lobbied against cuts.

"As we all know, a bachelor's degree is more important than ever," Dang said. "When students lose the ability to easily access an education, it affects not only their lives, but the lives of their family, their future children and everyone else."

"They already have not met the needs of students," Record said about Pell Grants. "They haven't grown to meet the rising costs of education."

Roberts said minorities will be disproportionately affected by the cuts and stagnant Pell Grant funding, "because, by and large, they are the largest proportion of the neediest students.

"So, having the federal government pull that stunt is dismaying," he said, adding that Congress seems to place a higher priority on constructing a bridge between the Alaskan mainland and a remote island--the infamous proposed "Bridge to Nowhere"--than on education.

According to Nametz, approximately 7,000 undergraduates--or about 25 percent--receive Pell Grants totaling $18.5 million. These grants are often sorely needed to pay for living expenses, he said.

"In four years, educational costs have exceeded the consumer price index just about all the time, because of the stuff students have to buy," Nametz said. "Students are kind of relying on Pell Grants to cope with rising costs everywhere."

Nametz said Pell Grant money often goes toward housing, food and, at a university with a number of commuters, gasoline. The maximum award amount of $4,050 is going on its third year, which is worth less and less as prices rise, he said.

"For students in general, I worry that they will consider themselves priced out of certain programs, so that very, very high-ability students who could do well at the university, they may decide on a two-year program or not go to college," Nametz said. "We can still help them, but it's a struggle. The people who are most vulnerable are the ones who have to work a little harder than others."

Nametz said he was unsure if the student-aid cuts would lead some to accrue more debt. Undergraduates on average leave school owing about $17,000, he said.

The cuts may further pinch students' pocketbooks after another expected tuition increase, which should be announced early next year. According to the Arizona Board of Regents Web site, tuition costs have risen annually for the past five years. The largest increase occurred in 2003, when tuition shot up 39.1 percent over the previous year. UA undergraduate tuition for Arizona residents in 2005-2006 is $4,497.

In light of all this, balancing everything may become more difficult for students like Natalie Pohanic, 18. The performing arts undergraduate and Pell Grant recipient said dealing with homework, cello practice and an outside job was "difficult" when she used to go to Pima Community College, so she quit her job when she moved to the UA.

"The time management aspect of that was hard," she said. "I have to practice my cello four hours a day. If I weren't a performing arts major, I could probably manage a part-time job and school. But I have to go home and do at least three to four hours of outside work."

Perla Diaz, a political science undergraduate, said she receives the maximum amount of grant money each year and would welcome even more.

"It definitely would make it less stressful, because Pell Grant money is used for my school expenses," the 21-year-old said. Fortunately for Diaz, her part-time job as a fundraiser for UA colleges works around her full-time school schedule. But, she said, "I know not a lot of students have that luxury."

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